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Roots Rising - Teenage Youth Empowerment through Farming

Roots Rising - Teenage Youth Empowerment through Farming

Today GreenJobs.com has Jamie Samowitz, who is the co-founder and co-director of the youth empowerment farming organization Roots Rising, on our blog for an interview. Jamie co-founded RootsRising along with Jess Vecchia. Both have a passion for community building work, farming, and making teenagers be less attached to technology. 

In our interview with Jamie we discuss how she and Jess made Roots Rising a reality, the vision she had for the organization and Pittsfield, crowdfunding, and more. 

GreenJobs.com - For those that don't know, can you explain Roots Rising and what is the organization's mission, history, etc.?

Jamie Samowitz - Roots Rising is an award-winning, women-led organization whose mission is to empower youth and build community through food and farming. Our vision is to lift up teens as community changemakers and strengthen the local food system through the transformational power of meaningful work. We have two main initiatives: our Pittsfield Farmers Market, which is the first teen-run market in the region, and our Youth Crews, where we hire Pittsfield [Massachusetts] teens to work on farms, in food pantries and at our own market.

We launched in 2017 with a crowdfunding campaign that went viral. Since then we've been growing the organization and expanding our programming. It has felt great to have the community's support behind us every step of the way.

Why do you think Roots Rising crowdfunding campaign was successful and resonated with the public?

I think the campaign was so successful because we had identified a real need in the community. We saw that the city's youth were in need of meaningful work opportunities, and our local sustainable farmers were in need of our labor. It was something that everyone could get behind. We had initially set a fundraising goal of $10,000, which we raised in 48 hours. We ended up raising $30,000 in three weeks, which was enough to launch us and get us through the first year. It's been an amazing journey, and we are gratified to know that our community wants these programs to exist as much as we do!

How did you come up with the idea?

JS - Jess and I both attended an institute held at the Food Project, which is an organization based out of Boston that has done farm-based youth development work for over a quarter century. We fell in love with their model and decided to adapt it to the realities of the city and region where we work.

Why focus on teenagers and getting them to work on farms and outdoors?

JS - We believe that teens belong on farms. Farming is the perfect antidote to a typical teen's daily life, which is increasingly spent indoors, sedentary and in front of screens. Farming is a feast for the senses. It requires a strong work ethic, teamwork and creative problem solving. And farms need teens. They need their energy, stamina and enthusiasm. So teens and farms are a perfect fit.

Do you think people are too addicted to technology these days?

JS - Absolutely. Not just teens- we are all addicted to our devices. I don't think it's necessarily our fault- these devices are designed to be addictive. They play into our natural longing for connection, meaning and a sense of belonging, and we live in a society where these needs are not being readily met.

What's the solution to this problem?

JS - We take away the teens' phones at the beginning of each workday, which I think is incredibly important. But more essentially, we provide them with deeper opportunities for connection and meaning. The most common way that teens describe the Crew experience is that it feels like a family. And they spend the day in close connection with the earth. So they don't miss their phones. We always say that we know we've been successful when the teens forget to pick up their phones at the end of the day!

But this need for belonging and community is felt by everyone, not just teens. The biologist E.O. Wilson has said that we live in an age of loneliness. So we aim for both our Youth Crews and our farmers market to serve as important "third places" in our city- spaces outside of work and home where neighbors can meet each other and community can be cultivated.

Taking away teenagers phones... is there crying involved? :D

No, it's really not an issue! We provide transport to worksites, and the teens know that they need to hand in their phones BEFORE they enter our van. We do that so that the teens will talk to each other in the van, or just stare out the window and daydream. Those kind of quiet moments are also being lost in this age of hyper-connectivity.

What do Roots Rising teenagers learn when being away from smartphones and technology?

I think they learn to be present with their feelings and with each other. Smartphones and other devices have a numbing quality to them. It's easy to avoid facing whatever they may be experiencing in the present moment. When we take that technology away, the teens need to directly engage with themselves, each other, and the land- without the mediation of screens.

Can you tell us successful accomplishments the organization has had?

JS - We've had many proud moments since our 2017 launch. One was transforming our Pittsfield Farmers Market into the first teen-run market in the region. This is an advanced opportunity for youth who have worked for one or more of our Farm Crews. They are involved with all aspects of running the market, including set-up and break down, vendor support, customer service and children's activities. They also implement our food justice programs, which help make the market affordable to all.

In addition, we are preparing to launch a teen-run food truck with ingredients sourced from local farms! We were able to purchase the food truck at the end of last year and plan to launch this new program this spring. Teens will learn culinary and entrepreneurial skills while offering the community a healthy food option.

What are some of the biggest challenges Roots Rising has faced? How did you and the team overcome them?

JS - The biggest challenges we face are probably familiar to many small nonprofits- we are on a continuous fundraising treadmill, and we put in much effort year by year to ensure the organization's financial sustainability. In addition, we have had continuous programmatic growth, but we have not had a proportionate growth in staff capacity. This organization is a labor of love for Jess and I, but we look forward to having a larger staff team in years to come.

Would you do anything differently from when you first started with the knowledge you have now?

JS - There's nothing about our path that we would change. Every challenge that we have encountered has helped us grow as individuals and as an organization.

Where can people go to connect and learn more about Roots Rising?

JS - You can find us at @rootsrising413 on Instagram and at facebook.com/RootsRising. Our webpage is www.rootsrising.org. Folks who are interested can sign up for our mailing list on our website. We love our community and appreciate all of the support that we have received thus far!